Last week the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California put out a provocative typology attempting to distinguish between varieties of American evangelicals in contemporary culture. Currently this typology, developed through dialogue with the Center’s researchers, is not based on any specific measurement strategies. Nevertheless, it makes some important distinctions that could help us better understand evangelicalism today.
They identify five groups: Trump-vangelicals, NeoFundamentalist Evangelicals, iVangelicals, Kingdom Christians, and Peace and Justice Evangelicals. The identity of each group is captured well in the five images above.
Trump-vangelicals are most likely to reflect some form of Christian Nationalism. They see Trump as “God’s man” for the moment. Comments about a modern-day Cyrus and celebration of a president who “tells it like is” while projecting strength is key to this group. Yesterday, my twitter feed started showing a billboard outside St. Louis showing a picture of Trump with the caption “The Word Became Flesh” and a note that said “Make the Gospel Great Again” (I didn’t include it because I didn’t want that to be my cover image for this post.)
NeoFundamentalist Evangelicals see a strong separation of church and society (notice how the cross sits in contrast to the city in the second image). They are concerned about moral decline and right living. So they support Trump in an instrumental fashion — expressing their concern over Roe in the Supreme Court, religious liberty, and same-sex marriage. Their commitment to separation makes diversity of viewpoint a challenge. Their primary concern is to maintain their right to their own positions.
iVangelicals are the megachurch crowd. As the USC folks explain in their summary, this reflects an accommodation of religious culture to the dominant strains of individualism and consumerism in our society. While there are exceptions, they would be less likely to engage in direct political action, preferring their worship experience to be about warm feelings and a vital worship experience.
Kingdom Christians are likely to focus on issues of service. I’d imagine that Anabaptist groups would excel at this. They want to work in areas of need to provide the support of the Gospel to those who struggle. They want to serve as Jesus did (notice the image). They don’t soft-sell their Gospel commitments but they work them out in external locales. The church becomes a sending place.
Peace and Justice Evangelicals are also committed to seeing society change. They are as committed to diversity and service as the Kingdom Christians but layer on an awareness of structural dynamics that create certain living conditions. You will find this group much more likely to address issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia, and the exercise of power. They envision a society that looks like the coming Kingdom. Their commitments to Jesus compel them to address these difficult issues that some would rather they left alone.
As the USC typology has been shared on social media, a number of people have raised legitimate questions. Why is this necessary? Isn’t this divisive? Can’t people be in multiple categories? Does this describe my congregation?
Why create a typology at all? Because too many in the public sphere focus on how 81% of self-identified evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016. Based on their limited inside knowledge of evangelicals, they still are struck with the contrast between evangelical stands on morality and the president’s history and demeanor. As I’ve written frequently on these pages, this misperception of evangelicals risks long term damage to how churches are perceived by those they try to reach.
Why separate evangelicals? Because we actually vary quite a bit in our methods of understanding scripture, of how we should engage our surrounding culture, and how that translates into personal decision making on key issues like voting. This is a problem inside evangelicalism as well. There are many in the first two groups that regularly call out the last two groups, suggesting they aren’t “real Christians”, much less evangelicals. Especially as we consider the generational changes underway in evangelicalism, seeing the variety might help us hold on to those who would somehow drift into becoming “nones”.
Can people be in multiple categories? Perhaps there are interesting shadings between adjacent groups. The line between the first two groups or the last two groups might be fuzzy. But it’s very difficult to imagine a Trump-vangelical who is also a Peace-and Justice Evangelical. These five categories are what sociologists call “ideal types” — Max Weber’s idea that we identify theoretical categories first and then test those categories empirically. Without this preliminary work we simply have polling data without an interpretive frame.
Does this describe my congregation? First, in creating the typology the USC researchers have focused on certain leaders within the broader evangelical movement. That’s an important first step. But there is a difference between the factors that influence a national leader and a local pastor, much less the people who attend the church. Second, there is likely more diversity in your church than you realize. I once did a study of congregational networks and found that there were conservatives, moderates, and liberals in all three of my study congregations. Their relative size shifted depending upon the theology of the church but they were all present. The reality is that we aren’t very good and discussing these distinctions within local congregations, allowing us to believe there is uniformity when there isn’t.
As I reflect on the work that the Center for Religion and Civic Culture has done, I have a couple of lingering thoughts. First, I would love to know more about how each of the five groups work with scripture. My hypothesis is that they all are looking for ways of being faithful in their hermeneutic, but they would disagree greatly on which hermeneutic to use. Furthermore, I’d love to know which passages are their go-to scriptures. My hypothesis here is that the Trump-vangelicals are more comfortable in the Old Testament while the latter two groups work from the synoptic Gospels.
My final concern is the one that has driven most of my work on evangelicals. When these five different groups approach policy and politics, is their view mediated by any kind of theological understanding? Or is their perspective simply shaped by their group identity (which I have described elsewhere as similar to team jerseys)?
Sociologist Richard Flory (senior researcher at the CRCC) he told me in an e-mail exchange that this work is just beginning. From here they will be looking for ways to operationalize these five groups. I’m eager to explore possibilities for teasing out these differences in existing survey data from Pew or the General Social Survey. My current book project is focused on people who are pretty much in the Peace and Justice camp and I’m excited to still be able to think about them as evangelicals.